Second #4278, 71:18, Image © Studio Canal
If film images act as the modern world’s hieroglyphics, then Still Dots 70 must clearly be the pictogram for sadness: from Robert Krasker’s silky black lighting to the neglected old-world beauty of Dario Simoni’s set decoration to Alida Valli’s spectral presence as Anna, this shot glimmers softly with heartache. Of course this impression is affirmed by what has come immediately beforehand: Anna lying in bed, silently weeping, her tear-streaked face turning towards us slowly in a devastating close-up. (She doesn’t yet know what Holly has discovered: that her lover is still alive.) And tragically for Anna, her nightmare is about to get worse: at the door is a multinational throng of military policemen, demanding she accompany them to headquarters in order to discuss her forged passport.
In a film known for its canted angles and bold compositions, this shot is striking for its neat, clean vertical lines: the screen could be split up into at least four rectangular zones, from the window at screen left, to Anna’s robed body, to the furnishing currently catching and reflecting a dazzling collection of lights (I would guess the fixture is a stove or heater of some kind), to the pool of blackness swallowing up the right side of the frame. But even when the camera rights itself and eradicates all diagonal lines, the effect is not one of stasis but of claustrophobia: no matter where Anna goes, it seems she’s walking into another cage, an imposing world that won’t allow her to escape her current loneliness and frustration. A picturesque view of nighttime Vienna is visible through her window, but even this external world is “boxed in”: judging from today’s shot, it seems to offer no liberation from Anna’s plight.
Besides its plethora of vertical lines, today’s shot is also striking for its meticulous lighting. We’ve had plenty of gorgeous examples of Krasker’s chiaroscuro lighting setups throughout The Third Man, but today’s example may be the most powerful, if only because of its emotional undercurrents. The abundance of shadows, struck by a few pinpoint dots and narrow swaths of bright light, is familiar to us from postwar films noir, which were known for their increasingly radical use of low-key lighting. What’s significant about the harsh lighting in both The Third Man and films noir is that they’re meant to represent deeper emotional or thematic concepts: although the nebulous shadows certainly contribute to a foreboding atmosphere, they more importantly suggest the violence, cruelty, self-destruction, alienation, moral despair, and/or doomed fates that distinguish such movies and their characters. On the other hand, though, Anna Schmidt is obviously no femme fatale; like Gloria Grahame’s character in In a Lonely Place (1950), a quasi-film noir about obsession and loss that vilifies Humphrey Bogart much more than the movie’s female protagonist, Anna is a sympathetic character who is nonetheless trapped amidst a sea of inescapable darkness. I can’t resist anthropomorphizing the camera here: if the film camera were a sentient being, arranged by the filmmakers yet responding to the scene with its own emotions, I would imagine this hypothetical kino-eye would want to weep for Anna Schmidt.
On Tuesday, Jeremy aptly surmised that Holly is “a romantic living in a world that isn’t”, but this might be even more true of Anna. Even after being made aware of Harry’s indisputable (and unthinkable) crimes, she believes that “a person doesn’t change because you find out more”: he’s still the same magnetic, essentially good-hearted Harry, and his guilt can’t unsettle her love for him. In an unromantic world driven by the attainment of wealth, strict moral codes, and a seemingly unending cycle of war(s), Anna doesn’t belong, and today’s still seems to highlight her alienation. The preceding shots illustrate just how unromantic this world is: at the officious military-police headquarters, a Russian bureaucrat orders a throng of MPs to apprehend Anna while holding her passport in his hand; they then descend a vast and barren staircase, only to hop in an army Jeep and drive silently to Anna’s apartment in a shot reminiscent of one we’ve seen earlier in the film. How can Anna’s fervent view of humanity, in which relationships are ironclad and individual people are universes in themselves, survive a world so cold and materialistic? (And does Harry Lime’s worldview coincide more closely with Anna’s romanticism, Calloway’s narrow moralism, or Popescu’s greed?) The fact that today’s still is backed by Anton Karas’s aching zither score reaffirms Anna’s out-of-placeness: it seems to me that Karas’s score (touted in ads as distinctly Viennese and exotic) serves a similar function as Anna’s character, a poignantly heartfelt counterpoint to the film’s war-ravaged, greed-driven milieu.
I hope it’s not too much of a tangent to close with Pauline Kael’s review of Shoeshine, Vittorio De Sica’s masterful 1947 film (which Kael reviewed upon rerelease in 1961). At first glance Shoeshine and The Third Man don’t seem to have much in common, aside from the neorealist trope of shooting on location in actual cities in an effort to root out the character or maybe even the aura of a place. But Kael’s respect for Shoeshine‘s sincerity in an insincere world seems to have some bearing here:
When Shoeshine opened in 1947, I went to see it alone after one of those terrible lovers’ quarrels that leave one in a state of incomprehensible despair. I came out of the theater, tears streaming, and overheard the petulant voice of a college girl complaining to her boyfriend, ‘Well I don’t see what was so special about that movie.’ I walked up the street, crying blindly, no longer certain whether my tears were for the tragedy on the screen, the hopelessness I felt for myself, or the alienation I felt from those who could not experience the radiance of Shoeshine. For if people cannot feel Shoeshine, what can they feel? My identification with those two lost boys had become so strong that I did not feel simply a mixture of pity and disgust toward this dissatisfied customer but an intensified hopelessness about everything… Later I learned that the man with whom I had quarreled had gone the same night and had also emerged in tears. Yet our tears for each other, and for Shoeshine did not bring us together. Life, as Shoeshine demonstrates, is too complex for facile endings.
I wonder if Anna–who, as an actress by trade, would presumably have a tremendous capacity for identifying with the emotions and behavior of others–would react with similar earnestness to a movie like Shoeshine, which aches with a humanistic sincerity that has become unfashionable in our postmodern film climate. (Coincidentally, Orson Welles did respond with this kind of awed respect after seeing Shoeshine: “In handling a camera I feel that I have no peer,” Harry Lime himself said in 1960. “But what De Sica can do, that I can’t do. I ran his Shoeshine again recently and the camera disappeared, the screen disappeared; it was just life.”) If Kael and Welles both admired Shoeshine‘s ability to value sincerity and real human lives in a world (cinematic or otherwise) that seems dismissive of such humanism, they reflect both Anna and Holly’s melancholy isolation: they are indeed romantics in a world that isn’t. The Third Man–though seemingly more genre-driven and studio-oriented than Shoeshine–is about this very paradox (the endangerment of emotional sincerity in a disrupted modern world), and it too recognizes (like Shoeshine) that “life…is too complex for facile endings.” (As we’ll see, The Third Man‘s ending is about as far from facile as possible.) Finally, just as Kael personally identified with Shoeshine by carrying over events from her real life, one of the reasons I love The Third Man so much is that, when I first saw it as a stereotypically angsty teenager, I identified strongly with Holly’s disillusionment and his romantic difficulties. Whether it’s the larger-than-life performances, Graham Greene’s pitch-perfect dialogue, or Carol Reed’s thoughtful direction, Holly, Anna, and Harry all still seem like real people to me. In today’s still, we can see Anna’s loneliness and vulnerability emblazoned on the screen, and her heartache (like that of the two boys in Shoeshine) is both devastating and radiant.
Over the absolute length of one year — two times per week — Still Dots will grab a frame every 62 seconds of Carol Reed’s The Third Man. This project will run until December 2012, when we finish at second 6324. For a complete archive of the project, click here. For an introduction to the project, click here.